By James H Nottage
It is amazing sometimes how misinformation gains and maintains a life of its own, no matter how carefully we try to debunk errors about art, artifacts, history, and culture. I am convinced that one reason for this is simply that people can be surprisingly lazy, no matter how passionate they are, about really trying to become their own authorities when it comes to the things they collect. A case in point is wonderful beaded Northern Plains moccasins that also have the bottom surfaces fully beaded in colorful designs compatible with the tops.
It was more than a few decades ago when during my childhood I was told that these were "burial moccasins." Over the years since, I have heard curators, collectors, and dealers use this reference and it often appears in collector publications and even in museum catalogs. One historian tells us that these were first observed in the 1870s on the bodies of Sioux found in burials after battles. As a result the myth began to grow. There is truth that such fully beaded moccasins were found in burials and that it was common to dress the deceased in the finest way possible. For a long time now, we have known that these were not identified by the cultures themselves as having been made for burial purposes. The cost of materials, the effort to create, and the status that came from such fine belongings was a matter more of stature and material wealth. Within a burial they were also a sign of respect.
Others have written informed assessments of these moccasins based on research that confirms they had no special religious or spiritual meaning. Certainly, the fact that there are so many extant examples strongly suggests that the decoration of the soles was for the living, and not the special accompaniment for souls. Let us take a look at a couple of examples from the collections of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis that help to counter the idea that these were for burial.
The child's moccasins illustrated here were worn by a Cheyenne girl, perhaps eight to ten years of age. We do not know much about her, but they date from the 1930s or 1940s and the brooch with the portrait of a young, but older woman has been interpreted as the owner a little later in life. It could be that this person was the mother of the child and she lovingly made the moccasins for the girl. There is no reason to doubt that the original wearer lived beyond the a time when they could have been worn in death and clearly they show few signs of wear, a sign that they were outgrown quickly.
One of the primary reasons why some people accept the idea of fully beaded moccasins as "burial" items is that in European cultures is difficult to contemplate the idea that someone would actually wear or walk on the beaded surface. Someone has contended, as recorded by historian James Hansen, that "the beads were an offering of beauty to the ground, the bosom of Mother Earth." I agree with Hansen. This is romantic nonsense. Note also that similar moccasins were decorated not just with beads, but also with dyed porcupine quills as well!
The second pair of moccasins featured here give eloquent testimony that they were worn. Dating from about 1910, these Lakota moccasins are handsomely adorned with white, blue, yellow, and two tones of green glass beads. Missing beads and wear to the leather at the balls of the feet and around the toes is evidence that the wearer was accustomed to walking not with the heel first, but with the ball of the foot first. These belonged to a Lakota man who walked with pride, wearing beautifully decorated moccasins that are an expression of a thoughtful maker and of the owner's sense of self and his stature. Perhaps the point I want most to make here is that the best examples of fully beaded Plains moccasins were generally created with great care and attention to the details of design, pattern, and color. They are not as uncommon as you might expect, but they are worthy of attention from collectors and curators alike. If they show wear, we can contemplate how they were used. We can consider them as expressions of pride and stature. We can appreciate them as representations of fine Plains bead work that flourished at a time when the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and others were undergoing extreme cultural stress. At the same time they testify to cultural survival, not internment.
So, the next time you see a pair of these moccasins, imagine a Lakota man dressed in his finest hair and bead trimmed shirt with accompanying feathered headdress, leggings, and other accessories. Picture him seated on a spirited horse and on his feet are colorful beaded moccasins. As horse and rider move there is a symphony of color and shape and attitude that is all expressive of who the rider is and of his station in life. And, yes, you can see flashes of color from the soles of his beaded footwear.
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage
PHOTOS:: Late 19th century Lakota moccasin with fully beaded sole. (top)
Cheyenne moccasins worn by a young girl, 1930s-40s. (top of group)
Moccasins with green beads, heavily worn] Lakota moccasins, about 1910. Note the heavy wear evident in the loss of beads and the worn texture of the leather. (bottom two)